Unanticipated responses to Orthodox-Reform fissures

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My entire adult life I’ve been hearing about the coming demise of the American Jewish community.

The first such prediction, some 40 years ago, went like this:

The Orthodox and the Reform define a Jew differently; intermarriage is rampant; therefore, the American Jewish community will be flooded with people whom the Reform recognize as Jews and the Orthodox do not.

This will lead to an irreversible split. There will be no mutual recognition of each other’s children; therefore, American Jews will be at each other’s throats; the community will eat itself up in infighting and disappear in the smoke.

The second such prediction went like this:

The Orthodox are reproducing; the non-Orthodox are not. Now, by “reproduction” was meant not just a number of children, but a number who would stay Jewish and identified.

The graphs and charts that accompanied this prediction showed many, many Orthodox Jews (I forget the exact number) for each Reform Jew 50 years from now. Orthodox Judaism will thrive; all others will disappear. Overall, the American Jewish community will shrink drastically because the rapidly growing Orthodox community starts from a very small point.

Now I read a third prediction, based on a recent study.

It runs like this:

Spirituality is growing among two segments of American Jewry: the Orthodox, and those with at least one intermarried parent or spouse. These often include converts.

The spirituality of each is radically different, with the Orthodox interest reflected in ritual and prayer, while the other interest is reflected in other ways.

Again, the Orthodox do not recognize most of the converts as halachic Jews; therefore, their common interest in spirituality will not bind them. The community will split, weaken and drift into sociological insignificance.

In the face of predictions like these, it is salutary to recall the title of the late Simon Rawidowicz’s book, The Ever Dying People, and to recall Yiddish as “the ever dying language.” Analysts and activists miss the irony in their collective regard of American Jewry as the ever dying community.

The first two predictions have not panned out. Unpredictable developments have undermined the certainties of the modern day prophets.

Prediction #1: Infighting.

It is true that intermarriage has undermined Orthodox recognition of who is a Jew in large parts of the liberal Jewish community. It is true that, on an individual level, marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a person raised in, or converted in, the liberal community now entails genealogical research. But a split? Actually, almost the opposite has occurred:

Converts in the liberal community who develop an interest in marrying an Orthodox person sometimes develop an interest in Orthodox Judaism and convert a second time. More often, there is keen interest in Orthodox Jewish practices by non-Orthodox converts. If anything, the lines between Reform and Orthodox Judaism are more fluid than 40 years ago.

Some Orthodox institutions have reacted to the drop-off in the number of American Jews (by anyone’s definition) by seeking financial support among non-Orthodox Jews without distinction as to who is, or isn’t, halachically Jewish.

Of even greater surprise, and far less pragmatic import, the Orthodox Jewish community has changed it approach in the last 25 years. It has launched outreach programs unprecedented in scope and concept. Intermarried or non-Orthodox Jews, including those who do not meet halachic criteria, are taught by Orthodox Jews all around the country.
Of still greater surprise, some in the Orthodox community, which virulently opposed outreach to the intermarried as recently as 20 years ago, are now engaged in outreach to certain intermarried couples. A whole effort to this effect has coalesced around a group called the “Eternal Jewish Family.”

And so, while certain lines have hardened as predicted, namely, the distinction between halachic and non-halachic Jews, the community has not suffered a collapse due to infighting. The demographic effects of intermarriage have come to pass, but the responses have been unanticipated.

Prediction #2: Reproduction.

It is true that the Orthodox have families many times larger than the non-Orthodox, and an intermarriage rate many times lower. But a Reform drop-off? Not institutionally.

Discounting current difficulties imposed by the economy, which affect all sides of the American Jewish community, Reform and other liberal institutions are flourishing in terms of members and resources.

True, many of their numbers include people whom the Orthodox do not recognize as Jewish. But the liberal institutions, qua institutions, have neither redefined themselves as non-Jewish nor folded.

The number of non-Orthodox rabbis graduated each year is growing, as are the number of attendees at non-Orthodox camps and other programs. As a sociological and not a halachic reality, the idea that non-Orthodox Jews will inevitably disappear is fallacious.

Prediction #3: Spirituality.

It is true that what the Orthodox mean by spirituality and what other Jews mean by it may differ radically. Does this make a split between the two groups inevitable?

It is certainly possible. That which Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is doing in Boulder is worlds removed from that which occurs in chasidic communities, notwithstanding certain similar outer trappings.

But given the unanticipated responses of both the Orthodox and the Reform to the other so-called inevitabilities, this is also possible:

The Orthodox interest will discern within its kabbalistic, musar or halachic traditions something akin to that which the Jews by choice, or those married to them, now find spiritually alluring; while the liberal interest in spirituality will become imbued with halachic practice.

Already, interest in mikveh in Reform circles has risen; and, generally, at least the younger generation of Reform rabbis speak warmly of mitzvos and engage in some — a far cry from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Now, that which Reform thinkers mean by mitzvos and that which Orthodox thinkers mean by mitzvos is usually quite different. Still, the newfound comfort in the Reform movement for Jewish traditions might signal a reduction of the gap in the future.

I do not downplay the severe strains and, indeed, the pain, both theological and personal, introduced into the American Jewish community by such practices as patrilineality. It is no delight to witness genealogical investigations in advance of marriages and other, related burdens, especially those connected with Jewish divorce and bastardy.

Nor are the new forms of relationship between the denominations always affirmative. But this much is clear: The messiness and fractures in the American intra-Jewish relationships notwithstanding, the American Jewish community is not collapsing in infighting.

While the community is shrinking overall — and all the old needs for intensive Jewish education and commitment to other mitzvos are more important than ever — predictions of demise are premature.

[This article previously appeared in the paper for which Rabbi Goldberg serves as editor: The Intermountain Jewish News]

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6 Responses

  1. Reb Yid says:

    To lacosta:

    On your first point:

    Certainly true that there’s a bunch of Orthodox raised within the Conservative community. But if you probe further, this ends up being the oldest cohort within the Conservative community. There was even a time where JTS got many of its rabbinical students from Orthodox homes…but the gulf between the Conservative and Orthodox worlds has widened considerably in the past two decades. Today, there are relatively few younger Conservative Jews, and even within that cohort relatively few who were raised Orthodox.

    On your second point:

    The reason a lot of young observant Jews (including but not restricted to “Orthodox”) join Orthodox congregations and not others is because they want to feel part of a community…often, Conservative congregations don’t have the critical mass of knowledgeable young Jews that would attract others…these Conservative congregations do exist, but they’re not nearly as abundant as Orthodox alternatives.

    Some women within this group will still “have their cake and eat it too” by becoming involved in Women’s Tefila Groups (either within their Orthodox shuls or in private homes), where they can read Torah, etc. There are also the Shira Chadasha type minyanim where a woman may lead Kabbalat Shabbat davening.

    There was a comment in a related thread about Orthodoxy responding to developments within the Conservative movement. There’s no question that the increased roles of women in the synagogue are due–at least in part–to the crossover of active, knowledgeable Conservative women into Orthodoxy, as part of the broader impact of feminism upon Judaism in general and Orthodoxy in particular.

  2. lacosta says:

    i am reading a book from the library called Jews in the Center By Jack Wertheimer of jts , about 10 yr old profile of the jews of the C movement–by sociologists of note. if you look at the profiles of people there , 2 issues stand out to me— 1] a not insignificant amount of O raised [ ie day school or more ] wind up there ;
    2] the prevailing wind for a long genration there is egalitarianism.
    this means that anyone [female] to become BT from C movement [and i mean from those on the knowledgeble end] would have to give up their aliyahs, chazzanut, tfila leading etc egalitarian roles. i think this will stay a large impediment to jumping the divide. in C you ironically can have it all; and i dont think they would want to give it up…

  3. Moshe P. Mann says:

    2.Kudos to Hillel Goldberg for this excellent post! His main point, that the doomsday predictions of Orthodox apologists and kiruv workers on the Conservative and Reform Jews have proven dead wrong, is something I had known for a long time already.

    Does anyone remember the infamous “Will your Grandchildren be Jewish” chart predicting that there would be something like 3 Orthodox Jews for every Reform Jew in 20 years – that came out 20 years ago??!! Well, that’s already been pilloried on the internet.

    Mr. Goldberg is absolutely right when he says “liberal institutions, qua institutions, have neither redefined themselves as non-Jewish nor folded”. We cannot define the success of Reform Judaism by our own definitions of successful Judaism, and then cast them as a dismal failure in light of that definition. If a successful Reform Jew is someone who only goes to synagogue once a year or is a member of the UJA, then sociologically speaking, he is a fully fledged Reform Jew, regardless of how the kiruv movement would castigate someone like that.

    I would like to add another poignant reason as to why doomsday predictions on non-Orthodox Judaism will not materialize: Any physical rate of change, in this case birth rate and assimilation rate, is inherently not constant! Anyone who has worked in applied sciences (such as myself :) ) knows that even the most expert economic, biological, and meteorological forecasts are only accurate in the short term, since all of those systems are inherently chaotic, and the forecasts are based on constants and linear relations which are not really so.

    As a sociologist once put it, “Youre better off predicting what the weather will be in 20 years than you are predicting what the Jewish community will be like.”

  4. L.Oberstein says:

    Most non orthodox Jews are not interested in “converting” to orthodoxy. The frum way of life is so alien to most Jews that only someone deeply unsatisfied with his life and/or someone with real intellectual or spiritual hunger would care to make the life altering choice of becoming a Baal Teshuva. Trrah may be the best merchandise but many Jews are content enough not to want to buy in. What Conservative Judaism used to do is give one the opportunity to enjoy Jewish practices without the pain of shemiras hamitzvos, the icing without the cake. This worked for people who grew up with a little Yiddishkeit but who still wanted to ride on shabbos and eat out, but also liked some Hebrew and doing Jewish things. What the Conservative Movement never ever stood for from day one was emunah. Now, it is clear that you can’t keep Torah without believe in its truth. Hence, it’s curtains for the non believers who still like to act Jewish from time to time.That’s a shame but that’s the way it is.

  5. CR says:

    There will always be a market for liberal heterodox Judaism (think the Karaites in prior generations). Hence the Reform movement or some successor movement sufficiently similar as to be indistinguishable will always be there to serve that market.

    The big question in my mind is what happens to the Conservative movement? With C shifting leftward as R shifts right at what point does the putative “centrist” movement become redundant? Do they become competing forces on the left much like Yeshivish/Chassidish (lehavdil) among Torah orthodoxy (small “o” intended)? Do they merge? Does one of them file Chapter 7? Do both eventually become 19th century relics to be replaced by some newer contemporary group with a “plague on both your houses” approach (think Michael Lerner’s Jewish Renewal or somesuch)?

  6. Neil Harris says:

    “The Orthodox interest will discern within its kabbalistic, musar or halachic traditions something akin to that which the Jews by choice, or those married to them, now find spiritually alluring; while the liberal interest in spirituality will become imbued with halachic practice.”
    Hopefully R Goldberg’s words will come true.
    Great post.